Edmonton busker battles!
It’s Saturday night on Whyte Avenue. A busker behind a drum kit made of plastic pails pounds out a furious beat, all by himself. You can hear it blocks away. Directly across the street is a guy playing loud electric guitar through an amplifier – on a completely different song. They even drown out the motorcycles.
Is this not the saddest symbol of Edmonton’s music scene there ever was?
The Whyte Avenue percussionist is a man named “Drummer Dale.” He’s the recent subject of one of those stupid, useless petitions on change.org. It was started by “Jon Nope,” who wants to ban him. Mr. Nope writes, “Have you ever been to Whyte Ave? Yes? Then surely you’ve heard the rhythmic idiocy that is Drummer Dale. He is an annoyance to pedestrians and an assault on the ears. He plays in areas where there are clear signs asking for people not to busk and panhandle. If you have half a heart you’ll sign this petition to permanently ban him from busking on any section of Whyte Avenue.”
A few hours later there popped up another petition to allow Drummer Dale to continue: “John Nope has selfishly decided to deprive Drummer Dale of all he really has in life. Let’s show this heartless bastard we care about human rights.”
The vote as of Sept. 15 was 147 to 77 in favour of letting Drummer Dale continue. The people have spoken.
Maybe the energy starting petitions could better be spent buying the guy a set of brushes.
Brother of Doug Pruden, aka “The Push-Up Guy,” in a family of Christian fundamentalists, Drummer Dale is said to have once been a professional drummer who played in bands and at jam sessions. What happened since is a mystery. He also turns up outside of the LRT station at Rexall Place during concerts. Same rhythm every time, all the time: Boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp, on and on and on. At the same time three kiosks from competing radio stations blare the hits of the day, three different songs at the same time. No petition to ban them yet. Meanwhile, on Whyte Avenue, downtown and in LRT stations across the city, a myriad of increasingly louder street musicians compete for spare change to the beats of their own respective drummers.
Some are good. Most are not. And there are more buskers than ever, their number – and volume – increasing. That’s because a musician can make more on the street, and with less effort, time and gear, than playing an average gig in a bar. Up to now it’s been a relatively unregulated trade in Edmonton, but expect that to change if complaints start piling up. Even other buskers are complaining about Drummer Dale.
“One night he set up 15 feet away from the other guy across the street from me. It was way too loud for me, where I was,” says musician Ryan Andrew, who busks on Whyte from time to time, through an amplifier. “It was downright rude.”
“Breezy” Brian Gregg is considered one of the Godfathers of Edmonton’s busking community. While he offers no opinion on Drummer Dale, he says, “I feel like Whyte is over busked. I go there very occasionally.” Gregg became a full-time busker in 1997 “after all the gigs dried up.” There was a time, old-timers remember, when musicians played in dozens of venues seven nights a week. Now it’s slim pickins. Gregg says he averages about $33 an hour on the street, playing one or two sets a day up to six days a week.
Singer-songwriter Benjamin Williams, age 16, is one of the youngest buskers seen in town. He says he earned about $80 a day this summer, and could probably make a “small living” if he wanted to. He’s also a recording artist, but doesn’t play many of his own songs on Whyte Avenue.
“The thing that gets a lot of people to throw in money is covers of popular songs,” he says. “I’m seeing a lot of older people on the Avenue lately, so I do songs like Mrs. Robinson and Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald. They like me.”
You gotta play to the audience, he says. No word on how much money Drummer Dale makes or if he’s ever tried the “Pay Me To Stop” approach.
There is a direct correlation between quality of street performance and the amount of money taken in. Gregg, who is also a recording artist, got so good at it that the Edmonton Arts Council even paid him to busk daily in Churchill Square for more than two years.
“But here’s the funny thing,” he says. “Panhandlers make more. They’re actively asking. Buskers don’t ask. We just do our music and if people stop and pay us, that’s cool.”
Unlike panhandling, busking can be a path to glory. Bands like Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous got their start on the streets. Yes, Moxy Fruvous, featuring disgraced CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. He played drums, too. Don’t forget the Shuffle Demons. If only we could. Their blatting sax rendition of Hockey Night in Canada echoed down Spadina Avenue in Toronto for years before they turned into a minor Canadian institution. The Internet is filled with viral videos of amazing buskers, some of them professional music stars doing social experiments, yet often drawing the same public indifference as any other busker. The Bill Murray movie Scrooged contains a scene where Miles Davis is jamming with David Letterman’s band in Times Square – and they are ignored.
There are other challenges of the street minstrel trade. People can steal from you, just reach into your guitar case, grab a fistful of change and run. It happened to Gregg twice this summer. There are hecklers, officious security people, drunks who want to sing along. “There’s some people who just hate my music,” Gregg says. “I had one lady scream, ‘shut up!’ The second time she did it, I yelled, ‘Go away!’ Of course she was already going away at the time because she was walking by. She never yelled at me again.”
As for Drummer Dale, there are fine lines between noise and art and entertainment. Some have suggested rogue street performers be licensed, like they are for the Fringe and in LRT stations. Local musician Philip Alexander Jagger busked on the Fringe site and says he was “reprimanded” for allowing Drummer Dale to join him. “Apparently both him and his brother Doug are banned from the Fringe.”
Like police employing art critics to bust graffiti vandals, will we have to get music experts to judge buskers? Is 20 straight minutes of boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp-a-boomp any less worthy than some kid singing Simon & Garfunkel songs? Should there be a law that buskers within a certain proximity of each other must at least try to play the same song together? How big an amplifier should you be allowed to have? Should bagpipes be banned outright? How about Mustang Sally?
Street musicians give life to cities. They add festive ambience to any urban stroll. They are a crucial part of any vibrant beverage district. There should be live music on every street corner in Edmonton.
Time to buy some earplugs.